Event Report: Survival Tips for the Digital Jungle

5 May, 2008

Aberdeen's Product Innovation and Engineering Summit draws unconventional thinkers.

During the week of April 28, in downtown San Francisco in Westin Hotel's main ballroom, Rockwell Collins Senior Vice-President Nan Mattai recounted a simple parable to describe the competitive global business climate.

"Two hikers in the forest were chased by a bear," she said. "One of the hikers said to the other, 'This is hopeless. We can't outrun the bear.' The other replied, 'I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.'"

Mattai's audience was composed of executives attending Aberdeen Group's Product Innovation and Engineering Summit. Some of the executives delivered the punch line before Mattai did. Apparently, that story had been in circulation among them for some time.

Three sessions and two coffee breaks later, the buttoned-down crowd was abuzz with ideas that were anything but straight laced. They entertained novel concepts, such as lean computing, RFQs for innovation, and buzz campaigns (manufacturing word-of-mouth enthusiasm for new products). Over the next two days, they discussed various ways to outrun the bear -- as well as one another.

Impromptu Survey at the Summit

Between sessions at the Product Innovation and Engineering Summit, Aberdeen moderators conducted impromptu surveys, asking attendees to electronically submit their votes on a number of topics. Here's a sampling of what was discovered when the votes were tallied. (Questions are paraphrased.)

What's your company's position on lean manufacturing?

  • Placing significant emphasis on it: 27%
  • Not planning on it: 16%

Are you familiar with open innovation (seeking innovation from outside your own organization)?

  • Never heard of it: 28%
  • Understand the concept but have never used it: 28%

How often do you use external resources?

  • Sometimes: 55%
  • All the time: 9%
Lean Is a Dirty Word
The first rule of lean manufacturing is that you don't talk about lean manufacturing. Jim Brown, Aberdeen's vice-president and group director of global product innovation, engineering, and manufacturing, recalled that one of his clients "had much better success as soon as he took the word lean out of the vocabulary." For the purpose of the summit, lean was defined broadly to encompass general waste-reduction measures, beyond the seven classic waste-reduction initiatives considered by the academics.

Mark Edmondson, senior director enterprise lean strategy at Raytheon, said, "It's really dangerous to mention lean, process, and standard work to [scientists and engineers]. ... They think the process police are coming, they'll have less time to innovate, and they'll have to spend more time documenting what they've done."

David Prawel, founder of the consulting firm Longview Advisors, pointed out that waste in the digital age is not as easy to detect as the pile of scrap metal in a plant. "Send [managers] into [a company's] CAD department. What they see is a bunch of engineers tumbling 3D models. What they don't know is that ... over 50% of the time [the engineers] are spending is wasted time," resulting from fixing poor geometry, transferring large data files back and forth, redrawing in 2D what already exists in 3D, and deciphering the undocumented design intent behind certain CAD features, he said.

Collaborating with Competitors
Jeffrey Weedman, Proctor & Gamble's vice-president of external development, urged fellow executives to look beyond their companies' concrete walls and firewalls for innovation.

"We will acquire 50% of our innovations from outside P&G," he revealed. For example, Swiffer Dusters, now one of the leading P&G brands, was originally conceived by Unicharm, a Japanese competitor.

Innovation, he pointed out, could mean "turning over things we have been doing to companies that can do those better than us, so we can focus on what we uniquely do well."

P&G also looks to outreach portals, such as, which plays matchmaker between technology consumers and developers, and NineSigma, which helps solution seekers circulate requests for proposals to entrepreneurs, researchers, students, and online communities.

P&G itself operates Tremor, an unconventional marketing medium that generates buzz by offering sample products to socially active individuals -- "over a quarter of a million influential teens," according to the company's description.

Borrowing the social networking paradigms, some product lifecycle management software providers have begun incorporating Web 2.0 features into their flagship products. For instance, Dassault Systemes' upcoming release, ENOVIA V6, uses instant messengers, chat windows, discussion boards, and project groups for collaboration in much the same way these elements are used in MySpace or Facebook.

In a recent Aberdeen survey, 72% of respondents said they plan to increase spending budgets for enterprise use of Web 2.0 technologies.

Loosen Your Grip on IP
P&G's Weedman shared various intellectual property (IP) treatment models better suited for the new era. "Maybe someone else can own [the IP to a P&G product], but we can have access to it in the areas that interest us," he said. "Maybe we have the IP, but we make it available to other companies in spaces outside our interest, and we can share revenues."

The "do it ourselves" approach, he pointed out, might be too limited for global competition. He said P&G has embraced instead the "proudly found elsewhere" motto.

During lunch, over cheesecakes and strawberry tarts, the crowd continued to debate about exactly how and where to innovate. But attendees seemed to be in agreement about one thing: Business as usual is out of the question. You can't outrun the bear -- or the competition -- by standing still.